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AstraZeneca launches care programme in latest war against cancer

 DR Dulcie Wanda, a clinical and radiation oncologist, demonstrates how the radiotherapy machine works, at the Nakuru Regional Oncology unit. [File, Standard]

The fight against cancer in the country has received a major boost after pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca and partners launched the Cancer Care Africa programme.

Kenya will be the fourth country after Algeria, Morocco and Egypt to have the same programme.

Launched in November 2002 at COP27 in Egypt, Cancer Care Africa is aiding countries across the continent to fight against cancer by advocating for policy changes to enhance screening and diagnostics, treatment and beyond.

 It is also implementing health awareness and education programs to empower patients as well as training physicians and healthcare workers and building their capacities and striving to enable access to cancer medicines.

The groundbreaking initiative will address critical gaps in cancer care across the country, from diagnosis through to treatment.

The programme is a first-of-its-kind collaboration with the Ministry of Health, The Kenya Society of Haematology and Oncology (KESHO), Axios, the National Cancer Institute of Kenya (NCI), and other partners to improve cancer care in Kenya by equitably improving access and outcomes across the patient care pathway.

Through a co-creation approach, the initiative will foster collaboration among the oncology community.

Cancer has become a major public health concern in Kenya and across Africa.

 Latest figures from the World Health Organisation(WHO) show there were 44,726 cancer cases and 29,317 cancer deaths in Kenya in 2022.

This is set against a regional context that estimates 2.1 million new cases and 1.4 million deaths annually by 2040 across Africa.

In Kenya, cancer is the third killer disease after infectious and cardiovascular diseases and the fifth in Africa.

 Despite recent increases in resources invested in cancer like ensuring the availability of mammographs in 42 counties among others, several critical barriers still hinder progress including a lack of disease awareness, limited diagnostic capabilities, an absence of structured screening programmes and challenges in accessing treatment.

Speaking during the programme launch on Wednesday evening in Nairobi, Cabinet Secretary for Health Susan Nakhumicha welcomed the programme.

"The launch of the Cancer Care Africa programme in Kenya is a significant step towards improving cancer care for all. This collaborative initiative has the potential to significantly improve access to diagnosis, treatment, and care, ultimately saving lives and improving the well-being of Kenyans impacted by this disease, as well as their families and communities," said Nakhumicha.

She added: "This programme will play a key role in in cancer care and management by challenging traditional thinking and advocating for policy changes in cancer care to improve outcomes for all individuals affected by the disease, regardless of their demographic, geographic or socio-economic status."

The CS said on its part, the Government of Kenya under the Ministry of Health has prioritised making cancer diagnosis, care, and treatment affordable for families.

"It is our priority now but with the coming into place of the Social Health Authority (SHA), Kenyans will get even greater relief on spending as SHA will take care of the huge costs of cancer treatment for all," she said.

To tackle these barriers, each country the programme works in develops initiatives across its four pillars of action including building capacity and capabilities, enhancing screening and diagnostics, empowering patients and enabling access to medicines.

“On building capacity and capabilities, we are committed to supporting more than 100 oncology centres and providing training for more than 10,000 healthcare professionals to improve quality of care delivered to patients across the continent,” said Dr Khomotso Mashilane, medical director, African Cluster at AstraZeneca during the launch of the programme on Wednesday evening in Nairobi.

She added: “And on enhancing screening and diagnostics, we will enhance screening and diagnostics provision for one million people across lung, breast and prostate cancer, to improve patient outcomes and reduce health system burden through acting early approaches.”

Empowering patients will ensure programme addresses the real needs of patients through engagement with local Patient Advisory Groups (PAGs) to support increased disease awareness and informed patient decision-making.

“On enabling access to medicines, we will enhance the availability of critical cancer medicines by introducing flexible models that can provide access to our innovative treatments,” she said.

 The programme, according to David Fredrickson, Executive Vice President, Oncology Business Unit, AstraZeneca, will initially target common cancers in adult people including lung, prostate and breast cancers then later child cancers.

 "With an increasing number of patients being diagnosed with cancer in Kenya and across Africa in the coming decades, joint action to improve patient outcomes and safeguard health care systems for the future has never been more important,” said Fredrickson.

 He added: “The Cancer Care Africa programme will support early detection, increase timely diagnosis, and improve access to treatment options for patients across Kenya.”

 According to Dr Mashilane, since the programme started 18 months ago, it has reduced the cost of and localised diagnostics of lung cancer and thus reduced turnaround time for getting results on lung cancer from one month after being sent outside the country to just one week.

Ahead of the launch, Cancer Care Africa has already donated ultrasound biopsy machines to seven hospitals across Kenya to enhance early prostate cancer diagnosis, as well as donated the country’s first biomarker testing machine for epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) mutations to Aga Khan University Hospital.

The programme will be active in seven centres of excellence(hospitals) including Kenyatta University Teaching, Referral and Research Hospital (KUTRRH).

Others will be Kenyatta National Hospital(KNH), Moi, Meru, Kakamega, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospitals and Coast General Hospital.

Dr Naftali Busakhala, President of the Kenya Society of Haematology and Oncology (KESHO)  welcomed the programme and partnership, saying it will lead to much better outcomes for cancer patients.

“Key in this innovative programme is access to medication or treatment through equitable pricing and this is a very interesting innovation. We look forward to analysing and see its performance because it will individualise financing and access to healthcare and thus very important to us,” he said.

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